Mark Galli: How Schools and Scholars Can Help Evangelicalism Become More Jesus-Centered

Historian Mark Noll’s prophetic call in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind launched a thousand more laments about the shallowness of evangelical scholarship and thinking.

The judgment remains accurate as far as it goes. American evangelical Christians are American Christians, and Americans have never valued the life of the mind as much as they might. But where Noll’s 1994 volume lamented the dearth of intellectual commitment among evangelicals, he now wonders if there is much evangelical thinking among the evangelicals committed to the life of the mind.

In a recent lecture, he said that institutions like Christianity Today and Wheaton College, among others, “sustain Christian seriousness about intellectual life.” He went on to say, however, that among the high level of evangelical learning on display among leading educational institutions and publications, “not much of it seems particularly ‘evangelical,’” but displays learning that draws on broadly Christian sources, like Reformed Protestantism or Roman Catholicism.

“That work is often obviously Christian, but with incredible variety, reflecting a huge mélange of influences,” he said. “For tracing broad trajectories of historical development, the word evangelical is probably still useful. But for contemporary evangelical effort, not so much.”

At the same conference at which Noll spoke, James K. A. Smith of Calvin College went on to argue that evangelical scholars should abandonthe attempt to discover and explore the evangelical mind as such, but instead to draw on these broadly Christian resources to shore up their intellectual efforts.

I basically agree with Smith—that is, I believe Christian scholars and schools should draw on the wealth of Christian thinking no matter where it comes from. But I also want to argue that evangelical schools and scholars have much to learn from a distinctively evangelical way of thinking about the faith.

Let me make this case briefly, borrowing from some of the material I used in Still Evangelical? (InterVarsity Press, 2018), as well as my online series on evangelical distinctives.

A Fifth Leg in the Quadrilateral

I begin by doing something foolhardy, risking yet another way of describing evangelicalism. It is certainly hard to beat historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral of emphases: crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism, and activism. But to crucicentrism I might add Christocentrism, and I might shape that by way of the historian Perry Miller and what he calls the Augustinian frame of mind. I believe that evangelicalism is a current expression of a venerable and unique way of being a Christian. What Miller said about the Puritans applies in large part to evangelicals as well:

As long as [American Puritanism] remained alive, its real being was not in its doctrines but behind them; the impetus came from an urgent sense of man’s predicament, from a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated. Inside the shell of its theology and beneath the surface coloring of its political theory Puritanism was yet another manifestation of a piety to which some men are probably always inclined and which in certain conjunctions appeals irresistibly to large numbers of exceptionally vigorous spirits.

I venture to call this piety Augustinian because Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind of which Puritanism is only one instance of many in 1,500 years of religious history.

We evangelicals share the urgent sense of humanity’s predicament that naturally pushes us to emphasize not only conversion and the centrality of the Cross but also to practice an exceptionally vigorous piety.

Another quote from Miller that starts to fill out this characteristic way of being a Christian:

Puritan theology was an effort to externalize and systematize this subjective mood. Piety was the inspiration for Puritan heroism and the impetus in the charge of Puritan ironsides. It made sharp the edge of Puritan cruelty and justified the Puritan in his persecution of disagreement. It inspired Puritan idealism and encouraged Puritan snobbery. It was something that men either had or had not. It could not be taught or acquired. It was foolishness and fanaticism to their opponents, but to themselves it was life eternal. It blazed most clearly and most fiercely in the person of Jonathan Edwards. It cannot be presented by description.

I believe many of my fellow evangelicals will recognize themselves in this summary, as I do—the heroism and idealism as well as the foolishness and fanaticism. Because evangelicalism is an expression of this enduring Augustinian piety, I do not believe it will ever go away, at least this side of the coming kingdom. We can abandon or change the name evangelical, as many of us wish to do, but that will not change the reality of the lived faith that Miller so perceptively described.

If we see evangelicalism as a contemporary expression of this distinctive way of being Christian, it is not hard to see this stream and its tributaries throughout church history—in German pietism, in elements of the Franciscan movement, in some medieval mystics, in the Waldensians, even in Montanism, not to mention Augustine himself. This is not an expression simply equated with orthodoxy (in fact at times it can wander into heterodoxy—part of that “foolishness and fanaticism”). And one of the qualities that often characterizes it, certainly in the American variety, is its Christocentrism.

A Jesusy Tradition

Many years ago, the then Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, California, Francis Quinn, and I were talking about evangelicals who were converting to Catholicism. I was a Presbyterian minister at the time, serving a small church in Sacramento. During the conversation, he said, “When evangelicals move into Catholicism, I hope they bring Jesus with them. We Catholics need more Jesus.” Catholics certainly do not ignore Jesus. He hangs crucified at most of their churches and his very body and blood are received in every Mass. But as the good bishop noted, Jesus is not necessarily at the center of most Catholic day-to-day piety. For many Catholics, that place would be occupied by the Virgin Mary or one of the saints or the magisterium or tradition.

It would be hard to argue that Catholics as a whole are “Jesusy.” That term was coined by writer Anne Lamott soon after her conversion. In a period of dark despondency one night she lay in bed when, as she recalls,

I became aware of someone with me hunkered down in the corner. … The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

A week later she found herself in church crying uncontrollably at the singing of the hymns. She left before the benediction and raced home. She says, “I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, ‘F*** it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’ ” Not your typical conversion story.

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Source: Christianity Today